We were standing in the lobby of the Hyde Park Art a stadium-style neighborhood theater in Cincinnati. She had shoved a dollar under the bars of the cashier’s window, and we were waiting for tickets — one adult and one child — to shoot out of the metal plate where the lady’s bright red fingernails rested. I studied the cashier’s gold hoop earrings; she had pierced ears, which I’d never seen before.
I wanted to say, Look at her ears! That’s really weird how the rings go inside her skin! but I knew it wasn’t polite to talk about the lady.
So I said, “How could you see a movie if there was no theater?” I wanted to know about Mother’s own childhood even more than I wanted to figure out the earrings.
“We went to these movies around sunset,” Mother admitted. “We had to bring some ‘punk’ along — it’s a kind of thing you burn to keep the mosquitos at bay. You see, when the movies were just starting out, there were some storefronts with benches in them — nickelodeons — but if you didn’t have much money there were vacant lots where you could sit, on benches, and watch the movie on the side of a building...”
This really astonished me. Mother was a decade older than the other mothers I knew, and the stuff of her childhood often seemed extraterrestrial.
“Don’t ever believe the words to that song, ‘Nickelodeon,’” she said, on another occasion.
The actual title of that song is “Music, Music, Music,” and it contains the lyrics, “Put another nickel in / in the nickelodeon. / All I want is you tonight / and music, music music!” It was written in 1949. The song writer, Mother explained, had confused nickelodeons, five-cent storefront movie theaters, with some kind of coin-operated music machine. (I’m guessing the orchestrion, ancestor of the jukebox).
“Nickelodeon theaters,” Mother continued “were dirty and full of mosquitos, and they had the same hard benches you sat on in the open lots...”
Gramp had been an itinerant laborer, moving from city to city and job to job. Whatever entertainments my grandmother and my mother indulged in had to be cheap, and movies in downtown lots only cost two cents.
The movies themselves were young then, the palaces still very much the stuff of dreams.
Arguably the first theater in the world exclusively devoted to showing motion pictures was simply called “the Nickelodeon.” In Pittsburgh, on June 19, 1905, Harry Davis and his brother-in-law John P. Harris dragged some benches into a storefront they had borrowed. In an early example of branding, they embedded the price of admission into the theater’s name, adding “odeon,” Greek for “theater.” Harris and Davis were seasoned showmen, already ankle-deep in Vaudeville, so they knew how to pack a house. Doors opened at 8 A.M. and closed at midnight seven days a week. In some sense, it was an early grindhouse. The “one-reelers” they showed — never longer than 20 minutes — guaranteed a quick turnover. Thousands stood in line, and copycat theaters bearing the original name sprang up all over America. (So goes at least one version of the story; there are others.)
A decade or more after Mother told me these tales, I grew up and moved to New York City, becoming involved (April, 1976) in running a nearly-defunct movie palace in Staten Island, the St. George Theatre.
Movie palaces were, of course, what Nickelodeons had anticipated, if it’s possible to anticipate the likes of a theater with smoking rooms, nurseries and regiments of ushers. The great downtown palaces had been the ballast of my childhood. Hadn’t they always been there, wouldn’t they continue to be? It just seemed natural and right to run one. The Palace, Keith’s, the RKO Grand, the Albee, all in downtown Cincinnati, were where you went with your family on Sundays, to see Ben Hur and other spectacles. A 3,500-seat Thomas Lamb confection, the Albee was my favorite, our premier theater, as close to Versailles as a middle-class midwesterner of the fifties was likely to get. It was where you wished the movie you wanted to see was showing, even if it wasn’t. Torn down in 1977 to build a Westin hotel, the Albee was a large part of what I was doing in New York, trying to keep the St. George Theatre open for business.
An authentic “flapper,” Mother had been there the night the Albee opened, December 24, 1927, standing in line in her cloche hat and beads to catch the “It” girl, Clara Bow, in Get Your Man!
Nickelodeons had vanished. Between 1913 and 1922 better than 4000 movie palaces sprouted on the map of North America, pristine and elegant as long-stemmed mushrooms: The Regent Theater (1913) in New York’s Harlem, a Thomas Lamb-designed Venetian palazzo in red, gold, and blue with Spanish-Moorish decor, was perhaps the first real movie palace, followed a year later by the Strand, also a Lamb house, in Times Square. Both theaters were operated by the impresario S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel, who’d gotten his start (where else?) in NIckelodeons. Though he washed out, finally, at Radio City Music Hall, the high-water mark of movie palace opulence, he had a good run. On the West Coast, the first-palace award probably goes to the Million Dollar Theatre, Sid Grauman’s extravaganza. The Biograph in Chicago rose in 1914, a less-than-thousand-seat treasure where, twenty years later, John Dillinger would be shot after watching Manhattan Melodrama. His ghost is said to haunt the Biograph. (Forgive this digression; I can’t resist the details). An interesting example of an early palace not in a major city is the tiny Al Ringling Theatre in Baraboo.Wisconsin, the circus showman’s gift to his own hometown — still standing.
By the time my own beloved St. George Theatre in Staten Island opened its door, on Dec 4,1929, the stock market had crashed, and the great movie palace impresarios (Rothafel, Grauman and their crew) had dreamed the better parts of their dreams. Rudolph Valentino (“the Sheik,” the “It” guy to Clara Bowe’s "It Girl") had been dead three years.
“I had a serious crush on him,” Mother confessed one night over a martini. She had watched his New York funeral on (Pathe) film at the Albee.
So the twenties passed into the thirties. Silent flicks flickered, and talkies, eventually in color, kept people, my mother included, shoving ticket money over the marble sill. It was the movies she went to, once or twice a week, not any film in particular, just the movies. Cartoons of course, and newsreels. You went.
In the lobby of the Hyde Park Art, the picture we were buying tickets to was, I think, Vertigo, way too grown-up for me. She said so at the time, but she loved HItchcock, she just had to see it. We’d have ice cream afterwards.
I was fine; it didn’t matter. I loved our neighborhood theater with its chrome deco doors, soft wall sconces and tufted seats. Eighteen years later, I’d be pacing the swirled carpet in a palace temporarily my own. Who knew?